PANMUNJOM, Korean Demilitarized Zone U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel toured the Korean DMZ on Monday under the watchful eye of North Korean soldiers and said the Pentagon had no plans to reduce its 28,500-member force in the South despite budget constraints.
"This is probably the only place in the world where we have always a risk of confrontation," Hagel said after visiting a blue, single-story building with a corrugated metal roof where talks are held with North Koreans in the truce village of Panmunjom.
As Hagel walked through the building, which spans the military demarcation line between North and South Korea, two North Korean soldiers peered through the windows on the northern side filming his movements.
"There's no margin of error up here," Hagel told reporters after leaving the U.N. armistice commission structure. "It's a very important location that we need to pay attention to."
He also visited the hilltop Observation Post Ouellette in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) where he looked across a valley into North Korea and received a briefing from South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin. The post is named for Private Joseph Ouellette, who won a Medal of Honor in the Korean War.
It was the first full day of a four-day trip by Hagel to South Korea to celebrate the 60th anniversary of a security alliance between the two countries.
Hagel told reporters that while the Pentagon faced pressure to reduce projected spending by nearly a trillion dollars over the next decade, the U.S. military had no intention of trimming the size of U.S. forces in Korea.
"No, there's never been any consideration of changing our force protection or force presence here in Korea or anywhere else in this area," Hagel said, noting U.S. President Barack Obama's desire to refocus on the Asia-Pacific after a dozen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. COMMITMENTS STAND
"We'll continue to do what we've got to do to manage those (spending) reductions, (and) at the same time assure our partners ... specifically here in the Asia-Pacific that our commitments still stand," Hagel said.
Addressing a dinner hosted by South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Hagel called his DMZ trip "a chilling reminder of the threat North Korea poses not only to this country but to the region and to the United States homeland as well".
North Korea conducted a nuclear test in February this year and a rocket launch last December that U.S. officials believe was part of its effort to develop a long-range ballistic missile. In response, Hagel said in May the Pentagon would add 14 interceptors to its missile defenses in Alaska.
Park spoke at the dinner about the threat of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons effort, saying that "under no circumstances will our two countries condone a North Korean nuclear program.
"Should North Korea make the wrong choice, we will answer resolutely," she told U.S. and South Korean military leaders.
While in South Korea, Hagel will participate in talks about the future of the alliance and attend a change-of-command ceremony for U.S. forces in South Korea.
Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, also are attending.
Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, the former director of the U.S. Joint Staff, will take over as commander of U.S. forces in Korea from Army General James Thurman.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)